Wednesday, May 9, 2007

My tree fell on my neighbor's porch - whose homeowners policy covers the damage? or Not

Dr. Robert Hartwig knows first-hand how homeowners insurance can come into play when one of your trees fall on a neighbor's property.

If one of your trees falls and damages a neighbor's property, "generally speaking, it is your neighbor's insurance policy that is called upon to pay the damage," points out Hartwig, chief economist of the Insurance Information Institute (III), in New York. "Since his insurance is being impacted," Hartwig continued, "you probably won't face an insurance premium increase as a result."
However, here's a cautionary word from Hartwig, on the basis of his own experience. "Your neighbor could come after you to cover his deductible. Matter of fact, when one of my trees fell on my neighbor's fence, it destroyed some of his fence and damaged fruit trees. In the interest of neighborly relations, I voluntarily paid for a new pear tree, so between what the insurer paid and what I paid, he didn't have any out-of-pocket expense."

The upshot for Hartwig? "My neighbor and I are still on speaking terms, which is a good thing. I paid for the new fruit tree, because I thought it was the right thing to do, although I was not obligated to do that."

Hartwig’s take on the insurance question resonates with Eric Goldberg, assistant general counsel for the American Insurance Association, in Washington, D.C. If a tree falls on your home and the incident happens to involve a covered peril such as lightning, no matter whose tree, your insurance company should pay for your home repair," says Goldberg.

However, Goldberg brought up an exception. That "would be if the damage occurred as a result of negligence," he says. "For instance, if the tree was dead before it fell, and you had proof that your neighbor knew or should have known that the tree was dead, the damage becomes your neighbor's liability."

Under that same type of negligence scenario, Goldberg has something else for you to consider. "You could be held liable if your tree is dying or dead, it falls on your neighbor's property, and you did nothing to prevent property damage." Under that scenario, Goldberg says, "your homeowners policy could come into play."

For example, Goldberg says, “your neighbor could file a lawsuit against you alleging negligence, and if that were to happen your homeowners insurer would defend you and investigate the claim. If it turns out that you are legally responsible for the damage to your neighbor’s house, your carrier will pay for damages up to your policy limits. Similarly, your neighbor simply submit a liability claim against your homeowners insurance policy.”

Goldberg's advice? "Ask your insurance provider for clarification if your homeowners insurance contract isn't clear on that issue. If you anticipate a problem -- such as the possibility of your tree falling -- you might consider doing something akin to an ounce of prevention. "If your tree is dead, remove it before it falls. That way you can head off the potential for a bigger bill later and stay on good terms with your neighbor.”

Insurance trade group representative Lynn Knauf focuses on the issue of how the standard homeowners coverage includes a section of "additional coverages" under the liability portion of the policy. There is also an "additional coverages" section under the property portion of the policy, says Knauf, director of personal lines for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI), in Des Plaines, Ill.

One of the "additional coverages" is "Damage to Property of Others," Knauf explains. "This coverage is typically $1,000, and it covers unintentional damage caused by an insured. The coverage is offered without a deductible because it's under the 'liability' section and offers a minimum amount of coverage for damage without the burden of proving that the insured is legally liable for such coverage."

This amount of coverage for "Damage to Property of Others" is above and beyond the limit of liability in the policy, Knauf indicates. She says that coverage comes in handy "when one damages the property of a neighbor. Most people just pay for damage to a neighbor's property in the interest of goodwill, but where the damage would represent a financial burden some will turn to their homeowners policy."

Knauf offers a final point on the subject. "Keep in mind however, tapping into this coverage will represent a "claim" under the policy - regardless of how small the dollars paid are. The homeowners policy should never be considered a maintenance policy or a 'slush fund' to pay for expenses."



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